Now who's the crazy one? That's the question at the heart of John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, a film that explores how suburban banality slips easily into insanity, and how the suffocation of social expectations of propriety and normalcy - particularly when it comes to mothers - exacerbates pre-existing notions of perfectionism. Cassavetes' film is in some ways similar to Todd Haynes' examination of escalating obsessive compulsive behavior in suburbia in the unnerving Safe.
A Woman Under the Influence features Gena Rowlands in the fiercely compelling role of Mabel, a wife and mother who is expected to fulfill the most basic of duties: fix meals, govern her children, answer her husband when he calls. She rails against social norms in the simplest of settings, from lunch gatherings to play dates. Her acts of perceived insanity are little more than acts of rebellion, trapped in a box crafted by patriarchy, where expectations regarding her behavior as wife and mother have not just been predetermined - they are tradition.
Many of Mabel's outbursts occur at the dinner table, a symbol of traditional familial and platonic gathering, a pleasant and comforting place regarded as sacred. It is the setting that defines a woman's place in the home, where the family gathers to essentially pay meager respect to her provenance - however expected it may be. This setting is where Mabel is required to function at her most proper and nurturing, which makes her inappropriate behavior all the more effective.
Cassavetes is not concerned with the why or how of Mabel's neuroses; instead, his film serves as a comparative portrait of mother and father, husband and wife - what makes Mabel crazy, while her husband Nick is perceived as sane? Nick is similarly inappropriate, particularly when tasked with caring for their three children during the six months when Mabel is confined to a psych ward. Nick is an obnoxious, agitated man, his own masculinity as predetermined as Mabel's place in the home. Peter Falk's natural wild-eyed, gruff appearance lends a certain unpredictability to his portrayal of Nick, a man who has been gifted with the privilege of being a man.
Society has always made concessions for men - we don't look the other way when they take all the liberties they can get; we acknowledge and accept that they are entitled to those liberties. Nick is allowed to act obnoxious and unreasonable; he's allowed to stay in bed all day; he's allowed to give his children beer in the back of a truck and demand that those around him submit to his will. He is not crazy, he's a man.
Mabel, however, must submit to social expectations. Her regression into childlike behavior indicates a desire to evade the exhaustive demands placed upon her as a mother and wife who works tirelessly and thanklessly - her husband is never grateful because this is just how it's supposed to be. Mabel isn't insane, far from it: she's simply fed up with being told how and what to be. She mumbles to herself in aggravated tones, justifying her frustration, and angrily mimics the stifling people around her, particularly her mother - a woman she must resent most for raising Mabel to fill an imperative role, as if all women are merely operating in a factory where mothers come from.
Rowlands' final outburst and act of defiance occurs, once again, at the dinner table - Nick has orchestrated a large welcome home party, only to dismiss the majority of the guests when he realizes that Mabel may be too overwhelmed. Not only does he undervalue her place in the home, but he unfairly underestimates her resolve. Nick does not view his wife as an equal, nor does he believe she is capable of living. The expectations placed on Mabel are suffocating: she is supposed to be polite and gracious, a good mother and wife (whatever that means), and the embodiment of femininity - a concept closely identified with fragility.
Mabel's perceived failings are the result of a husband who doesn't believe in her, in a society where she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't, where it's exceedingly difficult to navigate social norms. To feel stifled by her domestic life, to voice opposition to her husband's neglect and ingratitude, would be to step over a very rigid line. This lady has really got some nerve.
And it's that nerve that is misperceived as psychosis - that her behavior even has to be identified as an act of rebellion is tragic. At the climactic dinner table scene, Mabel is once again stifled by a series of expectations - her nervousness and her desire for solitude with her husband is frowned upon, as her close friends and family members chide her like a troublesome child. As if anticipating some inappropriate behavior, they warn her to sit down, remain calm, stop speaking freely.
When Mabel cuts herself, it is not a suicidal act or an attempt to really harm herself - it's a furious distraction, a desperate repellent, and one that enrages Nick to the point where he's threatening to murder their children. However empty that threat may be, his aggression is far more worrisome than Mabel's rebellious quirks and tendencies.
Cassavetes' close-ups on Rowlands' despairing face are almost exploitative in those final moments, her actions and reactions are so evidently futile. And just like that, she snaps out of it, succumbing to her suburban captivity. "I don't know what came over me," she explains to her husband, explaining away her perceived lapse in sanity with understandable exhaustion - but who is she convincing, really? We tell ourselves lies over and over as if practicing the truth, and each time we share the lie with someone else, it becomes more real.
A Woman Under the Influence essentially ends with a shrug, its cynical ending a statement of pointlessness and hopelessness and the futility of railing against an imposed social structure. Who is the crazy one here? And what is "crazy," really? Perhaps Mabel isn't the only one stifled by expectation, but gender and societal norms don't allow for a woman to express resentment. She is to be grateful for the life that was predetermined for her - anything else would be insane.